Friday, 7 October 2011

Sicily: Squid ink, a home cooked Italian lunch & Greek ruins

It's impossible to describe Sicily in a few sentences as it's such an enigma; beautiful, full of stark contrasts as well as fine nuance, a midden of past conquests and civilisations. Tenacious people living in a paradise where Mt Etna is a constant, but for the most part ignored, living threat.
We woke up on several mornings to find cars, pavements and houses covered in fine black dust (actually glass), and there was an almost permanent haze in the Naxos/Taormina air from Etna's breath.

The beach in Naxos, 2 minutes walk away from our 'bach'.
That said, the sea is so warm even I can swim in it! We stayed on the Ionian sea coast; to the southwest is the Mediterranean, and the Tyrrhenian sea surrounds the northern coasts. Beautiful turquiose water, and islands dripping in myth - Homer's 'Odyssey' with  the Cyclops is just one - and everywhere there are reminders of past occupations; Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish.

Visiting the Valley of the Temples was a long drive, but very worth while. Here lie the ruins of ten Greek temples that at one time were the rival of Athens. Some are partially restored, but every one has a presence all the more poignant because they are juxtaposed against a distant background of high rise housing.
Another interesting juxtaposition is the placing of some stunning modern bronze sculptures scattered among the temples.

Another reason why this day was memorable is that I tasted real squid ink sauce for the first time - don't know why I've not tried it before, after all other great foods are black - like truffles. Oh my goodness, the flavour! Squid ink (Nero di Seppia) is not at all fishy but is perhaps best described as tasting of sea and umami. In any case, I've already put in an order to Sabato back home. . . I loved it, just hope I can recreate that flavour!

Whole marinated and grilled squid were a triumph, too - it's seafood heaven in this place; squid, octopus, mussels, and of course swordfish (marlin).

Away from the beaches you could be in a different country, and it's well worth while exploring some of the villages in the more inaccessible parts of the interior, as well as villages like Savoca, where 'The Godfather' was filmed.

One of the absolute treasures of our week in Sicily was to be invited with our friends, Terry and Anne, to our host's home for lunch. Betti loves to cook and we'd already been advised that if Betti and Franco invite you for lunch, never under any circumstance turn it down. This turned out to be a great truth.

Betti & Franco

We've found the Italian people are, in general, very friendly, have a natural courtesy and a great sense of humour. In the case of Betti and Franco, they are also overwhelmingly generous and hospitable. This was no ordinary lunch.

First, there was a selection of appetisers

Skewered black and green grapes with cheese, baby tomatoes stuffed with ricotta and herbs

Foccacia with delicious home made sundried tomatoes

A fingerfood quiche/pie, with onion and a bechamel sauce

Betti's sister Rina, who with Franco was Betti's support team
There were also olives Franco had picked from the tree in their garden and processed himself - so good, with just a touch of chilli.
Next, the pasta course; Betti made Pasta Norma, a penne with home made tomato sauce;  sister Rina made a fresh anchovy, fennel, and tomato sauce,  garnished with coconut thread. The Pasta Norma was delicious, and I thought the anchovy/fennel/tomato was a great flavour combination.

Pasta Norma and penne with fresh anchovy, florence fennel, tomato and a coconut garnish
Each person was served a portion of both complementary pastas, and it was at that point I realised that 'lunch' was actually dinner. . .

Franco then dished up baked swordfish rolls topped with toasted breadcrumbs and accompanied by a caponata; a lovely combination of flavour, colour and texture.

Silver service, of course

Baked swordfish rolls, with caponata
Betti and Franco's son, Giovanni, lived in New Zealand for ten years, so Betti and Franco have visited  and both Betti and Rina wore pounamu, much to our delight. We would love to have been able to converse freely, but Russ is the only one of us who has taken some Italian lessons (five) but that, along with the fact that both Betti and Rina have been teachers and know a little English, helped. In any case, good food is part of an international language, as we all know.

I have to try to get hold of Betti's lemon sorbet recipe, it's the best I've ever tasted, and was served as a palate freshener after the fish.

And then, just to round off, was a superb grape and custard tart

And yes, I did eat it all. Needless to say, though, none of us were hungry again until after well into the night, and even then we didn't need much. Wonderful food, lovely people and what a treat to experience Sicilian hospitality like this.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Guest post by Christy of "Ellice Street Galley Kitchen" - Chickpea, zucchini and herb fritters recipe review

I’m Christy Harcourt. I live in Wellington, New Zealand and write Ellice Street Galley Kitchen, a food blog enjoyed by readers far and wide, including such personalities as my mother, sister, and aunties. I like many different foods, and am currently reviewing Rowan’s latest book, with quality testing services provided by my ever-patient and exceedingly lovely boyfriend, Josh.

I'm so lucky. I don't know if you've seen Julie & Julia (if not, you should - Meryl Streep is bloody fantastic) or read the book, but if you have - you'll know that Julie faced the following - ah, impediments - in her endeavour to work through an entire recipe book in order to learn about cooking:

* the recipe book was inordinately, unfeasibly long (524 recipes)
* she only gave herself one year to finish it (that's at least 1.5 recipes every single day)
* the book, while brilliant, was somewhat dated, involving a fair amount of obscure and archaic French recipes, including such delightful instructions as "boil this pigs hoof for 36 hours" (or something)
* the author of the book, when informed of her efforts, thought it was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard.

In contrast, Rowan Bishop's Vegetarian Kitchen is a mere 180 recipes (pfff - a snap, I hear you say!), I've given myself loosely a year to finish (read: if I don't finish by next June, I will probably just give myself an extension), the book is imaginative, modern, and simple to follow, and last but certainly not least, its author not only didn't think it was stupid, but actually invited me to write about it on her own blog. Win? I think so.

So here I am. I'm so glad I chose this recipe for Ellice Street Galley Kitchen's little field trip to Rowan's blog. It's a perfect demonstration of what attracted me to Rowan's book - simple, cheap ingredients, quick and easy to make, healthy, and yum. It's also, of course, vegetarian. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I like to eat meat in moderation, and there are too many good reasons for that for it to be worth going into here.

It was also another case of just letting go and trusting Rowan's recipe, which to her credit seems to be always worth the effort. I struggle with fritters as a concept, because although they are often quick, it's so hard to avoid ending up with something that isn't somewhat reminiscent of an oil sponge. I also would never have thought of grating zucchini. Shows what I know. These are astonishingly fast to make (in summary: blitz chickpeas, grate other stuff, mix, and fry). The chickpeas and other ingredients hold together beautifully in the pan, and somehow produce fritters that are not oily, but crisp and dry.

The chickpeas give a delightful, wholesome texture, and the zucchini and coriander complement their mild flavour. We ate them with supermarket thai sweet chilli sauce, which was good - though I mourn for the loss of my home made chilli jam which we finished last month. That would be even better, if you have any.

On the whole, a great success. I cooked up the leftover mixture for dinner the next night, and it was just as good, if not better. I have a feeling it would also freeze quite successfully. I’m only a quarter of a way through this book, and I can already unreservedly recommend it. Everything in it tastes awesome. Nothing in it is expensive, particularly hard to make, or boring. What more can I say?

Thanks Rowan for another inspired mid-week meal. And thanks for not thinking I am completely bananas.

Ka kite,

Click here to visit Christy's blog - Ellice Street Galley Kitchen

Friday, 30 September 2011

Minestrone with basil gremolata, and bruschetta

I was reflecting on what have been the stand-out things, foodwise, I've tasted and/or trialled in Tuscany during our stay here, and there have been many; but four came immediately to mind.

 -  a light, crisp batter for vegetables and stuffed zucchini flowers
- salted anchovies and what to do with them
- Squid ink
- Prosecco

More on these later, but just for something different I thought I'd post these recipes, both of which I developed before coming here but 'fit' well. Incidentally there are more recipes posted in my Rowan Bishop Food Writer facebook pages, under 'discussions'.


True comfort soup, full of flavour and topped with a basil gremolata, very like the French pistou, but with basil instead of parsley to emphasize the more robust Italian style.
Serves 6.
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
1 ½ cups diced leek
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib celery, diced
1 medium – large carrot, peeled and diced
 250g potato, peeled and diced
8 –10 large tomatoes, blanched, peeled and diced
         or 2 x 400g tins peeled chopped tomatoes, with juice
2 Tbsp tomato paste
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 ½ cups cooked or tinned cannelloni or baby lima beans, washed and drained
1 ½ cups fresh spinach leaves, chopped roughly
2 tsp salt or to taste
lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

Basil Gremolata

½ cup basil pesto
finely grated zest of 2 lemons (2 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp lemon juice

Heat the oil and butter in a heavy based saucepan over a low- medium heat. Sauté the washed, diced leek with the garlic for about three minutes, then stir in the prepared celery, carrot and potato. Turn the heat down, cover and cook about ten minutes, until the vegetables are softening.
Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, vegetable stock and basil leaves.
Cover and simmer 15 minutes.
Add the beans and cook for another 10 minutes, until the beans are thoroughly heated through, then stir in the spinach leaves and the salt and pepper to taste.
Bring back to simmer point for one minute.
While the soup is cooking, combine the ingredients for the gremolata in a bowl, check for seasoning and set aside.
Ladle the soup into warmed bowls, topped with a spoonful of gremolata and at least a tablespoonful of the parmesan.
Serve with hot, crusty ciabatta buns.


6 slices ciabatta bread, sliced 1cm thick
Oregano oil or extra virgin olive oil
½ cup well drained, diced artichoke hearts
¾ cup diced, seeded tomatoes, preferably acid free
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
1 Tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped roughly
3 Tbsp roughly chopped or torn fresh basil leaves (optional)
3 Tbsp ricotta (optional)
Salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup rocket leaves

Pre heat the oven to 190 C
Brush one side of the ciabatta slices with oregano oil (or extra virgin olive). Place on an oven tray, oiled side up, leaving a space between each slice. Bake at 190 C for 7-8 minutes.
Drain the artichoke hearts well, cut into dice and transfer to a small bowl. Mix with 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add the seeded and diced tomatoes to the artichokes, then the garlic, capers and the fresh basil leaves if using.
Spread about 2 Tbsp of the tomato/artichoke mixture on each of the ciabatta slices, and grind a little rock salt and pepper over. Evenly dot each bruschetta with ricotta (if using), and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil.
Return to the oven and bake for a further 5-7 minutes.
Transfer to a serving plate topped with rocket leaves and a further drizzle of extra virgin olive oil if wished.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

A great trattoria & the Cinque Terre

Living in Prato has meant we've sampled quite a few of the city's trattoria - not all of them, obviously, because they're around almost every corner, but enough to get a feel for the range on offer. Traditionally trattoria are informal, often family owned, and serve seasonal, very reasonably priced food.
Things have changed a bit, and these days a trattoria can be virtually indistinguishable from a restaurant, although not black tie. Prices and food quality vary, so when you find one you like, you'll probably want to go back to it.
Naturally we found one a bit further away; I've mentioned, and shown proof of, my being persuaded to join Russ (it's either that or be frogmarched) on his early morning walks in the hills above Prato, and on one of these we sniffed out an unlikely looking building set beneath the road. "La Fontana" -The Fountain - is a trattoria named after a mountain spring at it's door, where locals come to sit on the sides of the fountain, chat in the cool and fill their bottles.

Too early to be serving, but the dining room opens up under the vine

La Fontana is about 25 minutes brisk walk from where we're living, up a hill and accessed by a road so narrow that you have to hug the wall or back yourself into the bushes on the side whenever a car passes. But luckily friends here have a car, so we went with them the first time; the second time we  took a taxi there and walked home - good for the digestion as the saying goes, and a nice thing to do in these summer/autumn evenings.
It's a lovely spot, looking out over Prato to the hills in the distance. I initially had no idea that the specialty here is bistecca fiorentina, a Tuscan favourite which is essentially a T bone or porterhouse steak grilled over coals. A bit of a 'whoops' for me, not being a red meat eater, although I can cope with a mouthful on the odd occasion - if it's very very good or if I'm being very polite. There was fish on the menu, but it was dried, salted cod which I confess I haven't yet tried. I'm sure it's good, and I have enjoyed salt cod in Norway, but I was attracted more to a pear and cheese ravioli, home made of course, served with a rocket sauce -this turned out to be absolutely delicious, with either a salad or grilled vegetables. . .

So good that I ordered it again the second time we went, followed by a freshly baked orange souffle with chocolate sauce, which was equally as good. . .

The house red wine was absolutely excellent and very reasonably priced; Stefano, our waiter, was faultless, and all the dishes were of really high quality - great flavour, presentation and cooked perfectly.
Chicken grilling over the coals

The men had the steak, and I have to say that it was impressive; I did try a mouthful, and found it was full of flavour and so tender it could be cut with a spoon. Apparently this quality comes from the huge white oxen raised near Arezzo, Chianina beef, but of course it also has to be perfectly cooked. There's no ordering how you want your steak cooked here, it's only served one way- medium rare.

Working the magic
This is not a trattoria for tourists, it's on the outskirts of the city and you need a car or a taxi to get there - but it's well worth seeking out. . .

All smiles
I'm going to keep this fairly short, as there's been so much written about the Cinque Terre, and almost everyone on the planet must know someone who's been. Russ and I did a 'reccy' before returning to stay in Riomaggiore and walk the track, catching a boat from Portovenare to get a feel for this part of the Italian riviera from the sea.
It's quite evident that it's taken generations, from the 7th Century AD, in fact, to build up the terraces to grow olives and grapes and household vegetables; and the houses are really a testament to tenacity and determination to survive. The original settlers were literally chased over the cliffs to escape various occupations, and the houses cling to ridges where you think no one in their right minds would build.
It's a UNESCO World Heritage site now, understandably, and is still not accessible by car; you need to walk the paths connecting the villages, take a train, or go by boat. Walking is the way to see it if at all possible - it can be walked in one day, but if you're not in a hurry the whole place is gorgeous, so our advice would be to at least stay another day and enjoy just being there. Eat some of the great prawns, octopus and anchovies and enjoy the sea and the sun.

Looking back at Monterosso

Vernazza - stop and have a swim before you start off to Corniglia

No one said it was flat!

Grapes and olives dominate

We took the train to the northernmost village, Monterosso, then walked to Vernazza where we stopped for a coffee, pizza and a welcome swim before walking on to Corniglia. The track between Corniglia and Manarola is short, but closed due to slips and has been for some time, apparently; for the more intrepid, however, there is a' high' track, a 3 hour detour, a challenge Russ found irresistible. Anne, Terry and I told him the sun had got to him and opted for the more sensible option of the train, having already walked for 5 hours. We'd ambled the twenty minutes along the track from Vioreggio to Manarola the previous day, so we considered it was time for another swim and a well earned prosecco.

The trail between the five villages (the Sentiero Azzuro), is one of the most popular in Italy. Be warned, it can be crowded and is far from flat. We passed several hikers who were very red in the face and obviously hot and stressed; but if you're reasonably fit it is only 12km long in all, the trail is well maintained, and the views are magnificent. Of course, you can choose just to walk part of the trail if you're pressed for time or not as fit as you'd like to be.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Virgin's Girdle, Farro & last love of Elizabeth Taylor

Many significant churches in both France and Italy are hosts to relics, items belonging to persons of religious significance. These are often bones, but in Prato's case the relic is no less than Mary's girdle. Displaying it to the community each year is a very big event, and culminates in the Archbishop displaying the girdle from a speaking platform in the duomo, above the piazza crammed with thousands of people. Banners are hung from windows all around the piazza and proceedings are beamed onto an enormous screen so no one misses out.

Before this, however, hundreds dress in medieval costume and a procession makes its way through the streets as dark falls - musicians, archers, flag flourishers, stilt walkers and trumpet blowers.

I need a stronger flash. . .

Spectacular, and the Monash terrace provided fifteen of us with a great view -we all contributed something to eat and celebrated the occasion.

I made focaccia (which I'm happy to say a number of people want the recipe for - see previous post for the recipe) and also a farro salad, which also disappeared quickly.  Farro is regarded as the 'mother of all grains', the original ancient grain from which all others issued forth, including rice, barley, wheat and rye.  It's very popular throughout Italy and is enjoying growing popularity world -wide these days; it's sold as a whole grain, and when cooked has a nutty, chewy texture that is a platform for almost any flavour you can think of - sesame oil, toasted nuts, roast or raw vegetables, fruits, lemon and of course extra virgin olive oil.

Farro is very low in gluten, a useful thing to know.  I used farro perlato, where the hull of the grain has been removed so there is no need to pre-soak (actually perlato was the only kind I could find in the supermarket here). Just cover with about 7 cm water, bring to simmer point uncovered, and simmer for 6-10 minutes or just until the texture of the grains are chewy but not raw tasting or tough. Drain immediately, refresh under cold water and drain again. I added roasted eggplant, red capsicum (raw), diced apple, toasted walnuts and almonds, red onion slices, diced feta cheese and lots of chopped flat leaf parsley. Then I tossed in a garlic, lemon, honey and rosemary dressing.  Obviously farro can  carry flavours such as curry, mustard, orange, spices, mint or coriander just as well, and heaps of different chopped vegetables and/or fruits.  It's also great thrown into soups, just as it is.

It was quite a big bowl full!
I've not met anyone who doesn't like biscotti, but here in Prato they have a special claim to fame. Not only did these famous twice-baked biscuits originate in Prato - the first documented recipe for them is centuries old and preserved in the State of Prato - but Elizabeth Taylor was especially fond of biscotti di Prato, or cantuccini as they are called here.  They come in all flavours, and are centre stage in most food shops and bakeries; the Antonio Mattei shop has been doing a great trade in making, marketing and exporting them for generations.

Traditionally, cantuccini is either dunked in vinsanto, a rather sweet wine similar to a marsala; or served with vinsanto on the side (I'm sure the Roman legions weren't too concerned with such  niceties, though, and ate them more because they keep a long time).  They're the perfect finish to a meal - not heavy or intrusive but they have loads of texture, taste and are so simple to make.

I'm getting behind on these postss, so much happens; but the next post will be about an outstanding trattoria, La Fontana, and us walking the Cinque Terre.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Only mad dogs and Englishmen. . .


This post is not food-focused, as temperatures have been the focus this last month. For produce market pics, though, please go to rowanbishopfoodwriter's Facebook page. . .

Prato has been hot and quiet over August, as locals generally head for the coast in pursuit of the darkest tans possible and the odd sea breeze.  The temperatures climbed sreadily from low 30's to high 30's with no wind or rain at all. Despite this, I made it to Siena (home of panforte, among other things) with friends, and Lucca. We've also visited the town of Vinci (as in Leonardo da), a lovely little town set in an archetypal Tuscan  landscape.

The town of Vinci

The town has a museum dedicated to Leonardo, and has models of some of the things he conceptualised - from cranes to textile looms, to a helicopter, just to mention a few. Of course he managed to also paint the Mona Lisa in his spare time, plus other famous paintings and sculptures, and 'dabble' in anatomy, physics and writing - so many gifts, so productive in so little time - he died at 67.

By the time the mercury hit 40 C, Prato was almost emptied out. It was low humidity, but stepping out the door was like stepping into the blast of an open furnace door for a couple of weeks. The locals who did remain in town came out in the early evenings for a gelato, often, or to sit around one of the fountains or at an open air bar, hoping for a whiff of breeze; the heat was relentless, day and night. Icecreams and sorbets here are very good, and of course very popular.

But back to the heat. . .at least, you'd be forgiven for thinking, I'd be let off the early morning hill walks, but no! . . . I grizzled quite a bit, and pleaded Irish- ancestry- therefore -intolerance- to temperatures -above -35 C, but it all fell on deaf ears.

We did go into Florence several times - to the Uffizi, which is of course air conditioned as well as a must see, and to the Pitti Palace and to walk around the Boboli gardens; the latter, however, turned out to be a mistake in the heat; apparently my face assumed the colour of an over- ripe tomato before we were even half way around.

A suggestive cherub outside the Uffizi

Florence is a magical city, I just love it. I've waited a long time to see the David, but it is worth any wait - it quite literally takes your breath away. Every last tuesday of the summer months, there is free access to all museums and galleries in Florence, from 7pm - 11pm, so last tuesday night we took advantage of this and went to the Bargello, which is magnificent, then 'popped in' to see the David again on our way back to the station. As for the Uffizi, you could spend days in there. Then there's the Duomo of course, and the Ponte Vecchio; this city is stuffed full of history and treasures. To walk around a corner and see the Duomo in front of you - well, I've spent quite a bit of time in Firenze now, most of it with my mouth open.

This week, Prato is a different city; bustling with tanned locals home from their holidays, and 'invisible' doors have appeared all along the narrow streets, opening into lovely shops. The temperatures have dropped to early 30's again and early mornings and the evenings make it a joy to be out.

We did retreat to the coast ourselves for two weekends, to breathe some sea air and swim, and go to the Puccini festival at Torre del Lago - Madame Butterfly, and then back again to see La Boheme. Torre del Lago is a stunning outdoor setting; the lake can be seen from wherever you sit, the stage set in front of it, creating the illusion that the stage is surrounded by the lake.

From one of the exits at Torre del Lago - almost dark

You aren't allowed to take photos of the production or stage, unfortunately, but there's some good photos on the Puccini Festival 2011 website.  Both productions were magnificent but La Boheme was absolutely stunning on all counts, I'd go again tomorrow if I could.

We stayed at Viareggio, on the coast about 8 km from Torre del Lago, and of course wanted to dip our sweaty bods in the sea, but we New Zealanders are so naive (speaking for myself, at least) - it costs a minimum of 15 Euros (about $30.00) to hire 2 deck chairs and a sun umbrella, in order that you use them and a metre of  beach for the day. Loungers cost more. We bit the bullet, more than once.
Italians literally toast themselves, I've never seen so many deeply tanned people in my life, lying in the sun for hours and hours on end, worshipping those rays.

That was a bit of a culture shock, but it was rather lovely to laze around and swim beneath the Carrara mountains (which look snow covered but are in fact the source of the famous carrara marble).

After La Boheme we left Vioreggio and took a boat trip up the Cinque Terre, as we'll be walking it this weekend, with friends Anne and Terry. The five villages are fascinating, clinging to spiny ridges and nestled into clefts in the cliffs - very picturesque, and it was good to see them from the sea and get some idea of what we're in for. After all the hill training I've been doing, though, it should be a doddle.

As for the kitchen, I've been trialling a green gazpacho containing peas, mint or basil and yoghurt, pureed up with my kitchen whizz/wand of course. I decided it would be nice to have something different from the more traditional tomato based gazpacho, and it seems to me that a gazpacho  is essentially raw ingredients either chopped small and combined, pureed or partially pureed - a 'liquid salad', I've heard it called. It's always served chilled, so is ideal for this weather. I've also been trialling a light, fresh lasagne made mostly of raw ingredients. The idea of this is that the vegetables should generate enough liquid for the pasta to cook, but that the dish retains it's fresh flavours. In any case, I continue to scope out the Monday morning market, making sure I go along early so I'm not lugging my puchases home in the heat...more photos of the markets on rowanbishopfoodwriter Facebook pages - click here

Salted anchovies